Book Review: Longitude


I haven't been on this planet for a very long time, but I'm astounded by the rate at which technology has advanced. My first 'laptop' weighed 23 lbs, my first mobile phone weighed about the same. In just the last 20 years they have become pocket sized, and 20 years before that, neither were even imaginable! Thinking about technology and history, I recently read Dava Sobel's Longitude, a short, sweet tale of how man finally learned how to navigate the globe.

It's common knowledge that Christopher Columbus 'discovered' America in his quest to find a shorter route to India. Looking at a map one can understand how he thought that was possible: Just sail west. Here's the rub: Columbus didn't really know where India was. At that time, only latitude--the east-west parallel lines that circle a globe--had been somewhat accurately measured using the sun. Lines of longitude, however, were a different story. The globe was easily subdivided into 360 degrees, it is a circle after all, but beyond that, one needed to know a baseline longitude and how far one was from that baseline. The sun was useful, but it too was moving east to west. Two methods for determining longitude finally came about in the mid-1700s: A lunar chart and a timekeeping device.

Royal observatories popped up all over Europe to map the moon and stars: Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Edmond Halley all worked on the astronomical (pun intended) challenge. Fringe discoveries included finding the speeds of sound and light, and the theory of gravity.

Meanwhile, Europe's best clock makers worked on a timekeeping device. Clocks were standard all over the churches and city towers of Europe, but they were way too big to put on a ship; and more importantly, needed constant attention to maintain accuracy. This was impossible to do on a moving ship at sea. Within just a few years of England's Parliament announcing a £20,000 award for the method or device that solved the longitude problem, an Englishman named John Harrison came up with a clock to be used aboard ships.

Harrison's creation was unique and might have proven successful, had it been tested by Parliament's Board of Longitude. In fact, unlike most clocks at the time that were often 5 seconds to 10 minutes off over 24 hours, his clock was off less than one second! He felt he could do better, though. So, he made an even better clock. Again, he didn't put it to the board. He built another better clock. Almost 40 years had passed and in this time, the moon and stars were nearly completely mapped. His device might have proven superfluous. But, two years later, he built his coup de grace: a much smaller, more portable clock that he finally put forth to be tested. However, his clock would now be tested against the lunar maps, and if that weren't enough, the very man who created the lunar maps would test the clock!

I'm not going to tell you the end of the story, not exactly anyway. I want to bring your attention to two important morals of the story, though: The first is that excellence can be the enemy of good enough; the second is that following your own convictions will bring you your own rewards. Harrison's first attempt probably would have won him the prize, hands down. But he had to keep tinkering with it and that set him back while his competitors caught up. He knew he was on the right track, he stuck to his conviction, and thanks in part to his perseverance and genius, our world is accurately mapped, and we have great watches to boot!

More By Jake Cornelius
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